It was a happy coincidence that I was asked to write my first article for LibertyWorks while I am here visiting in China, where my father lives and works. Being immersed in a culture that has familiar artefacts, but on the whole is quite alien to me, is a prime place for deep thought on the nature and meaning of culture, and what it means for freedom.
Perhaps turning coincidence into tragic irony is the fact that I am writing this in a Starbucks, on the corner of a major intersection in the third-tier city of Guilin, in the Guangxi province. For the most part, Guilin is still considered to be part of the third world, and I have witnessed good reason for that in some of the older and less gentrified districts of the millennia-old city. Yet, here I sit in an American coffee franchise, in a third world region in the far east, and I discover to my horror that the Chinese people make a really damn good coffee! The absurdity of this goes deeper if you know anything about how notoriously bad the Starbucks coffees are in Australia. The taste here is different, and it’s hard to put my finger on, but it does beg the question: could the adoption of a western food franchise be influenced by the thousands of years of Chinese culture, such that it drastically changes the quality of the end product? It’s not a perfect analogy, but it does get me thinking.
One thing we can certainly agree upon is that not all coffees are created equal, and perhaps even that not all countries make coffee equally. My experience when I travelled in Japan, though otherwise wholly positive, was that coffee there is a non-starter. Coffee is perhaps one of the least important artefacts of culture, but it is a good place to start, since here I am.
I’ve noticed other things about China that bewilder me. The prevalence of the state here is obvious. In the giant sprawling city of Guangzho, there are police everywhere, cameras, toll points, dummy police lights, inspection points, and social messaging propaganda all over the place. My first night in Guilin I dined at a restaurant called “Chairman Mao” which was kind of like “Coco Cubano” in Australia – a franchise designed around kitschy mid-20th socialist revolutionary nostalgia. The food of course was nothing short of decadent, thanks to the much greater influence of capitalism since those bloody times in this country. I paid for my food with bank notes, upon every denomination of which is a print of the smiling Mao Tse-tung himself. He’s still regarded as the father of the nation here. But not everyone is oblivious to the horrors that occurred during and after his revolution.
Still, despite the prevalence of the state, the restrictive laws that put a total ban on guns, pornography, political dissent, and access to the full scope of foreign influence online, the view from the street here is very different. Road rules appear optional. Permissionless pop-up enterprise is ignored by the state. People are largely left to settle their own disputes. The place appears to be on the verge of total chaos, and yet is functions and sustains. How is this so? How can the socialistic model which we libertarians in the west abhor so deeply be hybridised with capitalism in this way, and how can the people seem to be so free and independent of their state, despite the stringent rules that dominate this society?
I believe the answer is culture.
China is an ancient society, the oldest civilisation on Earth, and the roots of modern China are deeply entrenched in Confucianism. I’m no expert on the topic, but my understanding of it thus far suggests that Confucianism places the community and the family above the individual. This is in stark contrast to the Judaeo-Christian influence of the western world that puts the individual first, especially as he relates to God. So it makes me wonder if China is an example of a society where the influence of socialism is not anathema to the mindset of the people as it is in the west.
Libertarians are notorious for their disagreeability, even amongst themselves, and the Culture War seems to be one of the biggest dividing lines. I think the Culture War is a topic widely misunderstood, and misrepresented by the extreme poles of Libertarianism, in a similar way to Human Biodiversity. One the one extreme, both topics are called “bogeymen” and are granted no credence whatsoever, which reminds me of the ostrich burying his head in the sand. On the other, they are seen as absolute truths at all levels of resolution, which of course becomes a great basis for totalitarian views. I think, as with most things, the truth is somewhere in the middle. Human biodiversity is an undeniable scientific truth, in aggregate. That means that the trends in IQ and outcomes do correlate along ethnic lines on average, which explains a large component of why some cultures thrive and progress, while others decay and decline. But this fact is only true at a low-resolution level of study. It tells you absolutely nothing about any given individual. So to judge a person’s intelligence by their ethnicity is a dangerous misinterpretation of the science, but to deny the validity of human biodiversity is just as fool-hardy, when trying to understand why not all cultures are created equally.
Perhaps it was Ayn Rand’s great emphasis on the sovereignty and potential of the empowered individual that informed the modern Libertarian’s unwavering commitment to ignoring culture’s influence on people, but again I fear that this is an almost zealous misreading of the brilliant author’s intent. The culture we are raised in influences us whether we admit it or not, as does the language that we speak. In my opinion the two are inextricably linked. Can we learn other cultures and languages? Certainly. Can we reject the culture that we grew up in? Of course. But most people do not, so again the question comes back to whatever resolution you are studying.
When we look at the Middle-East and North Africa, we see nations and cultures that are vastly different from those of Australia, North America, and Europe. Of course the people there are human beings too, and many things are universal and transcend their culture. They love their children too. But the manifest practises of a society are a result of their history. Culture is history.
The West fought through many horrendous and bloody centuries to achieve milestones like the Magna Carta, the separation of Church and State, class mobility, the end of aristocracy and serfdom, the end of slavery, equality for women (yes, we already bloody have it!), and now we are slowly moving towards a belief in the full personhood of children, thanks to movements like peaceful parenting.
How many of these things do we see in Iraq? Iran? Libya? Sudan?
History defines culture, and culture defines aggregate values. There will always be individuals who defy the norms of their people, and in that way Ayn Rand’s position on racism as anti-individualism is true. But to open the immigration gates to people from vastly different cultures, on the altruistic assumption that most of them are just like us, is absolutely foolish. It doesn’t reflect an individualist meritocratic position either. It strikes me as anti-racist virtue signalling, but it is proving in Europe to be nothing short of suicidal.
I’m not a politician, or an economist, and I don’t know the final answers to these complicated questions in the West, but I do know a few truths, because they are self-evident:
- Not all cultures are equal.
- Not all individuals fit the mould of their culture.
- Open borders are a breach of the Non-Aggression Principle if the welfare state still exists.
The solutions to the problems we face in the West are evasive, complicated, and if found, difficult for most to grasp. I believe the key is context, and making sure that your judgments are appropriate to the level of resolution that you are looking at. Libertarians who outright deny the culture war, and who think that the mass importation of foreign and hostile cultures to the West is just fine, are doing a damn fine job of ignoring one of the biggest threats to the bedrock of what liberty we currently have. The alt-righters and alt-reichers who think that human biodiversity is an absolute truth at all resolutions, and that the mass-deportation of anyone with brown or black skin appear to be hellbent on destroying what liberty we have.
Whatever the answers turn out to be, I believe they will only be found by following the truth where it leads, even if that is to very uncomfortable and challenging places, and above all else: to think intelligently. Freedom exists because intelligent men and women spoke truth to power. Blindly sabotaging the aggregate intelligence of a nation will not lead to greater freedom in the long run. Blindly surrendering our intelligence to fear and loathing will destroy western values even faster.
We need to talk about it (all of it) with nuance, with an appropriate degree of tolerance, and without running away in cowardice when uncomfortable truths are raised. That is the true culture of freedom. Let’s do it while we still can.